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Box office returns

Box office returns — Every Sunday, movie studios use statistics and sorcery to conjure winning results for the weekend’s premieres

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In Hollywood, most weekends are over by 11 o’clock Saturday night. By that point, anxious studio executives and producers have already riffled through two days of tracking reports from theaters across North America and know where — or, at least, roughly where — their movies stand in the weekend box office shuffle. First thing Sunday morning, the studio with the best outlook starts bragging that it’s got ”America’s No. 1 Movie!”

And sometimes, as on Oct. 13, two studios start bragging — and battling. That day, New Line Cinema predicted The Long Kiss Goodnight would gross $9 million and be No. 1; then Paramount Pictures replied with higher figures for The Ghost and the Darkness and The First Wives Club — $9.3 million and $9.2 million — and New Line got huffy, accusing Paramount of deliberate inflation. By Monday, they were playing chicken — each trying to outwait the other’s final estimates — prompting trade reporters Exhibitor Relations and Daily Variety to issue their own lower numbers, about $500,000 less for each movie. It was an embarrassment that forced the dueling studios to put in their final bids: New Line stood pat at $9 million; Paramount sliced a meaningless $100,000 off its tallies. With no means of independent auditing, the press went along.

Such is the weekly shell game that passes for box office fact. ”I call it Sunday madness,” says longtime analyst Art Murphy. ”It’s crazy.”

Crazy, maybe, but Hollywood’s not complaining. Playing Nostradamus is good marketing, giving studios ample wiggle room to pad their projections — $500,000 here, $1 million there — just in time for Monday morning’s news. Firmer totals don’t arrive until that afternoon — long after, say, the Today show has talked up the weekend’s top five films. How does sleight of hand enter the calculations?

TALLIES DON’T COVER SUNDAY. Monday box office totals are only extrapolations based on Friday and Saturday returns, according to Entertainment Data Inc. (EDI), the company hired to track such figures for the studios.

TALLIES DON’T COVER ALL THEATERS. What returns EDI does provide are partial, accounting for up to 23,000 of the roughly 29,000 movie screens in North America. Many rural and smaller theaters don’t report sales until days or weeks later.

STUDIOS CALCULATE THE TOTALS. Although each studio has access to EDI’s raw data for every movie, ”they make their own interpretations,” says Marvin Antonowsky, a former executive vice president of Sony Pictures. ”By guessing how movies performed in the theaters EDI doesn’t track, studios can fudge a bit.”

Studio execs don’t exactly deny that. ”There’s no sense kidding about it,” says Sony Pictures Releasing president Jeff Blake. ”We make projections for Sunday totally in the dark. You’re going on little information. But, look, it doesn’t make any sense to lowball your estimates.”

Although studios regard the current system as self-policing, ”it’s the honor system in an industry not known for being honorable,” says a production company executive who asked for anonymity. ”Studios inflate figures to get attention, and they know the public’s not going to call them on it, as long as they stay within reasonable limits.”